Oil and Gas Industry Advocates Launch Surprise Attack on Texas Environmental Science Textbook

by Dan Quinn

When the State Board of Education‘s public hearing on new science textbooks for Texas public schools finally began late Wednesday night, it became clear that creationists were unable to mount a real attack on the biology textbooks. So all looked to be going well — until it became equally clear that oil and gas industry interests had decided to attack the only environmental science textbook up for adoption by the state board.

The last person to testify, Becky Berger, who identified herself a geologist and oil and gas professional, insisted that high schools shouldn’t even teach environmental science classes. She proceeded to attack the environmental science textbook from publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH). Berger claimed that the textbook is filled with factual errors on topics like pollution potentially caused by hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and the problem of carbon emissions (which the vast majority of scientists say is the primary cause of climate change). But she provided no actual written documentation to back up her claims. None. In fact, she didn’t even provide a list of the alleged errors so that the publisher could respond to her claims.

The state’s official review teams had not identified any factual errors in the HMH textbook. In fact, one of the reviewers included this comment in the official review document:

Overall, the book is well put together and offers several case studies to put learning in context and some good online resources for labs and research (EcoZine articles). The formative assessments are not necessarily formative, but that is more of a pedagogical arguement [sic]. Far superior to other, on level books that I have seen, and very similar to the Miller text used by AP Environment Science classes.

Nevertheless, some board members decided that Berger — who had not been part of the review process — apparently was more credible. They expressed shock that the textbook had factual errors — errors that Berger had claimed but not documented. And they made clear that the textbook’s adoption was now in question.

The entire episode showed just how easy it is for special interests, at the last minute, to hijack the textbook adoption process in Texas. We’ve seen it happen again and again.

In another twist to this story, Berger didn’t bother to tell the board that she is a Republican candidate for the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry. Was she grandstanding in an attempt to gain support from anti-regulation tea party activists and oil and gas interests deciding whose campaigns to fund? That seems a reasonable question for board members to ask.

Moreover, Berger was a late addition to the list of testifiers on Wednesday. Throughout the day, conservative activists and websites had been urging activists to call on the state board to reject the science textbooks up for adoption — especially the environmental science textbook. From the Women on the Wall website:

This week the State Board of Education (SBOE) decides whether the next generation of Texas public school students have textbooks that teach 21st-century/Common Core science which is filled with  Global Warming/Climate Change propaganda that demonizes the oil/ natural gas industry. If these textbooks are approved Texas’ oil/natural gas industry will eventually be destroyed. The oil/gas industry drives our Great State’s economy and provides thousands of jobs–we must protect it.

Call write, tweet, facebook do what ever it takes to let them know you do NOT want them to adopt the proposed Science text books.

Women on the Wall is run by Alice Linahan, who has her own for-profit political outfit Voices Empower. Voices Empower posted the same call to reject the science textbooks. (Linahan has also helped lead the right-wing witch hunt against CSCOPE, a curriculum management system used in hundreds of public and private schools in Texas.)

So what happens now? The publisher (and Texas Education Agency staff) have asked to see a list of the alleged errors and documentation to back up the claims. The question right now, however, is whether the lack of such documentation will matter much to politicians on the State Board of Education. Stay tuned.